Looking Global Warming in the Eye

When I first reported on global warming in the 1990s, events unfolded relatively slowly. Now they occur in such a blur that they barely have time to register on the media eye. Here's a sampling from only the last thirty days:

The United Nations reported in July that the current world food crisis will intensify due to climate change, with more drought and other extreme weather impacting crops. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program concurred, saying that as carbon emissions rise, America will experience more droughts and excessive heat in some regions even as intense downpours and hurricanes pound others.

As if to validate these projections, the public's attention was riveted on Mississippi Valley floods that drowned huge swathes of farmland (the second such deluge in fifteen years); while in Texas the U.S. cotton crop was savaged by heat, wind and blowing sand. The evening news featured images of Iowa under water and northern California on fire.

Elsewhere, scientists worried that North Pole ice may completely vanish this summer, while a new study suggested that Arctic ice loss could cause tundra permafrost to melt far more quickly, releasing vast stores of carbon, triggering runaway global warming.

Just four weeks ago, respected NASA climate researcher James Hansen told Congress that: 'we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb... The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.'

Hansen joins Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and renowned British ecologist James Lovelock -- who have said that humanity is about to pass or already has passed a 'tipping point' in terms of global warming. The IPCC, which reflects the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from over 100 countries, recently stated that it is 'very unlikely' that we will avoid the coming era of 'dangerous climate change.'

Still, the environmental establishment, the leading presidential candidates, and the G8 nations continue to peddle the notion that we can solve the climate problem. -- We can't.

We have failed to meet nature's deadline. In the next few years, our world will experience progressively more ominous and destabilizing changes. These will happen either incrementally -- or in sudden, abrupt jumps.

Under either scenario, it seems inevitable that we will soon be confronted by water shortages, crop failures, increasing damages from extreme weather events, collapsing infrastructures, and, potentially, breakdowns in the democratic process itself.

Even assuming the wildest possible success of our current climate initiatives -- say that humanity decided tomorrow to replace all fossil fuels with non-carbon sources -- it would still be too late to avert major climate disruptions.

The unprecedented planet-wide unraveling of our climate system demands an unprecedented response. The only antidote to a potentially cataclysmic future is a revitalization of government -- an elevation of public mission above private interest and an end to the free market fundamentalism that has blinded much of the American public with an unfounded belief in boundless profit and the divine power of markets.

In short, our response requires a revival of participatory democracy that reflects our collective values far more accurately than the corporate state into which we have slid.

We need to think of ourselves now as citizens of a profoundly distressed planet. As nature washes away our resources, overwhelms our infrastructures, and threatens to splinter our political institutions, our survival will depend increasingly on our willingness to join together as a global community.

As the former Argentine climate negotiator, Raul Estrada-Oyuela, said: 'We are all adrift in the same boat -- and there's no way half the boat is going to sink.' To keep afloat, we need to change the economic and political structures that determine how we behave.

To survive the catastrophe of global warming, with civilization intact, we need to elevate the ethic of cooperation and peace over the ingrained reflex of competition and war. We need to elevate our human similarities over our geographical differences. We need to reorganize our social structures to reflect our most humane collective aspirations.

We need to share our money, food, technology, know-how, even our land, as the world's coasts begin to disappear beneath incessantly rising seas, and warming-driven crop failures leave millions hungry. There is no body of expertise -- no authoritative answers -- for the unfolding crisis. We are crossing a threshold into uncharted territory. And our only position of strength lies in crossing that threshold as a global community, joining together in a common global project to rewire the world with clean energy.

Since there is no precedent to guide us, we are left with only our own hearts to consult, whatever courage we can muster, our instinctive dedication to a human future -- and the intellectual integrity to look reality in the eye.

Ross Gelbspan was a reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Bulletin, Washington Post, and Boston Globe (where his work won a Pulitzer Prize). He has authored two books on global warming The Heat is On and Boiling Point, and his website outlines plans for a rapid shift to alternative energy sources: www.heatisonline.org

(c) 2008 Blue Ridge Press